Oi Polloi

Interview: Richard Gottfried and the crazy world of crazy golf

Published: Wed Mar 30 2016

Whilst trying to find a suitable location for our latest photo-shoot thing, we stumbled upon an amazing website called The Ham and Egger Files, documenting a man and his wife’s valiant attempt to visit as many crazy golf courses as possible.

Digging a little deeper we found out the man behind this brilliant corner of the information superhighway was called Richard Gottfried, a champion miniature golfer who’s played at over 600 courses. Keen to know more about this mysterious sport, I pestered him for answers...

First things first... when did you first play crazy golf?

My first memory is playing the crazy golf course at the Abbey Meadows in my home town of Abingdon. That was back in the mid-eighties.

The concrete course is still there and I always try to have a game when I go back home. It hasn’t changed much at all since I was a kid!

When did it become something more for you than just something you’d maybe play on holidays?

Well, I have always played crazy golf on holiday. I remember games against my mum, dad and brothers when we were at Butlins in Minehead or at the holiday camp on Barry Island. The course there was indoors and next to the table tennis tables in the Games Room.

But back in 2006 I started working a few towns away, so I needed a car to get there. Having the ability to travel around a bit more meant that me and my wife Emily decided to see how many British seasides we could visit.

Our first stop was to see my brother in Southsea. While there we played the Treasure Island Adventure Golf course, I won a free game pass by ‘Firing the Cannon’ on the lucky last hole and after that I was hooked. As we found most seasides had a miniature golf course of one type or another we thought we’d see how many we could play. Ten years later and we’ve visited 672!

When did you realise that you were really good at crazy golf?

I’ve always known I was good (laughs). Seriously though, it was when I began to compete on the national tournament circuit. In my first year my best finish was fifth place in the Players Championships in Margate and that made me think it’d be a sport worth sticking with.

When you’re regularly competing against the best players in the world you see your game improve, and when you start getting on the podium and actually winning events you know you’ve picked the right game to play.

I’m going to be honest, I don’t know that much about crazy golf. What is its history? When did it start? Who started it?

Crazy golf is a predominantly British name for the game, elsewhere it’s called minigolf, adventure golf, goofy golf and all manner of other synonyms.

The first course to use the name crazy golf was in Skegness in 1926 and amazingly there is still a course on the very same spot. We actually played it on National Miniature Golf Day last year while on a weekender in Skeggy.

The first-ever miniature golf course in the world is also still in existence and is well worth a play. It’s known as The Himalayas and you can find it in St Andrews, Scotland. There are two grass Putting courses there now – an 18-hole and a 9-hole layout – and they are marvellous to play.

Who designs the courses? What is it that makes a good course?

Within the world of minigolf there are a number of variations of course. Some have strict standards as to what material and obstacles are used to construct the course, while others are real fantasy courses and could be considered one-off works of art.

There are a few companies that specialise in course design and building, others have portable courses which are hired out for corporate events, parties and weddings. Other courses are designed and built by individuals or family-owned businesses, some are inspired by famous holes from regular golf, others are built with the materials and space available at the time. That’s one of the great things about crazy golf, there is so much variety you’re bound to be able to find a course that appeals to you.

At the very least a good course has to be playable. We’ve actually played a course before that had no cups to putt the ball into!? You had to try and stop a very bouncy golf ball in a concrete horseshoe at the end of the hole. That was utterly ludicrous.

Really great courses are those that are pleasing to the eye, playable – with good opportunities to get holes-in-one for well-aimed shots – clean and well-maintained. Little things like having nice scorecards and pencils to keep score also add to the experience for me.

It’s also good if the course has got straight putters and round balls, you’d be amazed at some of the wonky putters and oval balls we’ve had to play with!

Some courses have particularly outlandish obstacles. Windmills... dinosaurs... Wild West stuff... where did this sort of thing originate?

A lot of the theming has been brought over from the USA. There are some pretty wild and crazy courses over there and savvy business people over here have seen a gap in the market to bring ideas like pirates and jungle-themes to capture the attention of British punters.

Windmills have been around for a long time and they’re a classic obstacle on Arnold Palmer Putting Courses.

I think the recent releases of Pirates of the Caribbean and Lost World films have really helped course owners renovate and update courses, and open new ventures that appeal to a mass market.

You’ve visited over 600 crazy golf courses in an ongoing tour you call The Crazy World of Minigolf Tour. When did you start this? Where has it taken you?

We’ve been all over the UK and also visited more than 20 courses overseas, which all started after our trip to Southsea in 2006.

When we began we’d seen a list of courses that crazy golf legend and five-time World Champion Tim ‘Ace Man’ Davies had put together on his website which listed 600 courses around the UK. We thought we’d start off playing the courses local to us and at the seasides we wanted to visit.

Last summer we visited the 600th - the Jurassic Adventure golf course in Swanage, Dorset – at the start of a two-week holiday in which we visited 62 courses. We’ve now visited 672 and estimate that there are around 50 courses for us still to get to. But with new courses opening all the time, who knows when and if it’ll ever end?

Our tour has been wonderful in getting us to explore the country and we’ve been to some great places, both on the coast and inland. Some we’d love to go to again, while others have been less than salubrious, but they’ve pretty much all been fun days out or weekends away.

What’s your favourite course that you’ve visited?

There are so many brilliant courses out there and many I’d happily play over and over again so it’s nigh on impossible to pick one single course.

Around the country you can find some real hotbeds of minigolf – Skegness is an obvious pick of top places to play. There are nine courses and 102-holes on offer along the sea front.

We also particularly enjoy minigolfing trips to Hastings, Blackpool, Whitby and Great Yarmouth.

On the grass putting side of things there’s a cracking course at Canoe Lake in Southsea. Even though that seaside was the first we visited on our tour, and one we’ve been back to a number of times since 2006, it was only last year that I managed to actually find the exact location of the course at Canoe Lake! It’s a real pleasure to play and I’d still be playing it now if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s only open in the summer.

What’s the weirdest crazy golf obstacle you’ve seen?

Apart from the course with no holes I mentioned before, one of the craziest crazy golf obstacles is the whale’s mouth you have to play into at Moby Adventure Golf in Romford, Essex. It’s bizarre.

In continental Europe there is a type of course that you’ll find in many countries and it’s often called ‘Beton’. We’ve played some of these courses in official international tournaments and one of the holes on the course is called ‘The Hammer Cage’. You start by placing your ball on a rubber tee and then pitch it from the cage, over the grass and onto a circular ‘green’ with a dip in the middle. I remember using a very bouncy ball on this hole once and it took about a minute for the ball to go in the hole after it’d rebounded numerous times. That was my oddest hole-in-one.

There’s another European course type known as ‘Eternit’ and on that you have to hit a ball up a ramp and into what looks like a fishing net!

We love rocking up to a course that we’ve never seen any photos of, or finding a course completely unexpectedly. There really are some weird and wonderful courses and obstacles out there. I’d definitely suggest people get out and give the game a play, you never know what you might find.

Although saying that we once found an unpleasant surprise in one of the cups on an abandoned course on Southsea Pier. Let’s just say it was a popular spot for dog walkers and leave it at that.

I can’t say I’m very good at crazy golf (or normal golf, for that matter). Have you got any tips for a beginner?

When you get to the hut make sure you pick a putter with a straight shaft and a ball that is round. That’d be a good start.

You should always plan your shot before you tee-off. Crazy Golf is often about angle-shots, rebounds and pace. The direct route to the hole may not be the best. There are also pipes, bunkers, tunnels, ramps and all manner of other obstacles littering courses to watch out for, so if you can I’d advise having a look at all the alternative shots to play from the tee-off point.

And if you’re playing a windmill hole play around it, not through it. That way it takes the spinning blades out of the equation.

Crazy golf always seems to be found in seaside towns, but rarely inland. Why is this?

For an island nation the seaside is a classic holiday destination and so all manner of fun and entertainment options have been developed over the years and putting has been a mainstay for more than a hundred years.

We’re finding more and more courses opening up in towns and cities. One place that wouldn’t normally spring to mind as a minigolf hotspot is Castleford in Yorkshire, but there are actually six courses spread over two leisure and shopping centres there. One of those courses was the 200th played on our tour.

You’re a crazy golf champion. What trophies have you won? Is there quite a big scene for these things?

I've achieved seven wins on the national tour – including winning the British Club Championships twice with the Midlands Minigolf Club. On the second occasion we had a special minigolf ball produced to celebrate. That was really nice.

In 2009 I won the Blackpool Pleasure Beach Open championship and the trophy I received is magnificent. It's a huge ceramic golf ball, mounted on a wooden plinth with a gold plaque on the front. I won that tourney by a big margin and when I was presented the huge trophy I was over the moon. 2009 was a good year for me as I also won a pair of tournaments in Manchester.

I've picked up wins at a fair few independent tournaments too. The pair of trophies I was presented with for winning tournaments at the temporary Crazy Golf course on the roof of Selfridges on Oxford Street are amazing. They're really extravagant, tiered, gold trophies and they take pride of place on either side of our fireplace at home. 

When we made our international debut for the Great Britain team at the Nations Cup in Tampere, Finland we were awarded medals from the city and they look fantastic. It’s also nice to know that my face has a permanent place on the Wall of Fame at the Putt Park in Las Vegas after I won their tournament in 2011.

While it's still a small game in the UK, the world minigolf federation is pushing for Olympic recognition and has more than 38,000 registered members around the world playing in over 1,500 competitions in 55 countries each year. So it's nice that Emily and I have been ranked among the best of these players since 2008.

Are the skills transferable to normal golf? Do you ever play normal golf?

Yes, the proof is definitely in the putting. I’ve never played a full round of 18-holes of big golf, but I do enjoy Par-3 and Pitch & Putt. I’ve found when I do play regular golfers on a Par-3 course I win as my competitors are keen to whack the ball off of the tee, but when it comes to holing out they haven’t put in the practice.

Seeing as we’re a clothes shop, I best ask a clothing related question. What clothes are best whilst playing mini golf? Do you wear golf shoes?

Looking back at old photos from our travels I’ve worn some terrible clobber. Who’d have thought that clothes from 2007 would look so dated only a few years later? I definitely need some new gear.

If we’re playing for fun then we’ll wear street clothes, but in tournament mode it’s a bit different.

I have been sponsored by UK and International companies during a couple of tournaments, so I had some nice branded t-shirts, jackets and caps to wear. I particularly loved the kits I received from the Putter King in Japan and UrbanCrazy here in the UK.

Crazy Golf isn’t the most athletic of pursuits, but it is a test of endurance and concentration, and when we play in tournaments we’ll normally wear t-shirts or polo shirts and chinos or jeans. If we’re playing in really serious events then we’ll wear tracksuits. I’ve got some nice Great Britain kits hanging in my wardrobe.

On the international side of things the world governing body has a strict rulebook and things such as ‘floppy sun hats’ are not considered to be appropriate and are banned, much to the chagrin of some veterans of the British scene.

Back in the UK, competitions are played all year round and if we’re not in some nice warm indoor adventure golf course you’ll soon find that welly boots and waterproofs are de rigueur.

Haha brilliant. Okay, last question... what do you get up to when you’re not travelling the world playing crazy golf?

When I’m not playing crazy golf I’m writing about it for my blog and newsletter! Away from that I really enjoy collecting – I’ve got a lot of postcards, pins and tokens from sporting events and entertainment venues. I also enjoy playing and watching darts and I’m a big fan of comedy.

If it’s fun and quirky I’ll give it a go. I’ve played a lot of odd sports over the years including dodgeball, finger jousting and egg throwing. In fact I won a world title in egg throwing at the 2012 World Alternative Games!

Okay, one more question... what's finger jousting?

Finger jousting is a sport of strength and prodding prowess. I've been 'competing' in it since 2006.

See Richard’s website here.